LAHAINA, Hawaii — Before dozens of lives were lost in the deadliest wildfires in Hawaii’s history, Front Street in Lahaina was a leafy, oceanside tourist thoroughfare of art galleries, souvenir shops and restaurants. The firestorm that tore across Maui’s western coast this week decimated Front Street, burning right down to the edge of the Pacific Ocean.
Wildfires that have scorched the grasslands of the Hawaiian islands have become increasingly common but until this week had not flattened a town. The fire that destroyed large parts of Lahaina on Tuesday and Wednesday was a grasslands wildfire that became a house-to-house urban inferno.
Along Front Street, wood-framed stores were flattened. Other structures were reduced to concrete shells. Some 270 structures — including homes, businesses, a school and a church — were destroyed or heavily damaged, the authorities said.
Images of the smoldering ruins on Front Street offered testament to a panicked escape. A collection of charred vehicles, their tires vaporized, clogged the pavement at odd angles. Some cars jutted onto a sidewalk that in calmer times offered an unfettered view of the Pacific Ocean.
Some survivors escaped into the waves, where the Coast Guard rescued them. But with access to downtown Lahaina now heavily restricted by the authorities, there was no way of knowing on Thursday how many occupants of the homes or vehicles did not get out in time.
Lionel Montalvo, a retired fire chief for the Maui Fire Department, said in an interview on Thursday that he feared the death toll would rise significantly, especially among the elderly. Already, the wildfire had the highest death toll of any fire in the United States since the 2018 Camp fire in California that killed 85 people.
“I believe that a lot of people stayed in their homes expecting the Fire Department to show up and put out the fire,” he said. Some older people in the community are accustomed to smoke from the days when sugar cane fields were burned at harvest time, he said. They might not have felt that alarmed when they smelled the smoke, he said.
Gov. Josh Green of Hawaii said on Thursday that the death toll would likely exceed the 61 people lost when a tsunami crashed into the Big Island in 1960. A Maui County spokeswoman said the official death toll was 53 as of Thursday afternoon.
By Thursday, the Maui fires, including the one that devastated Lahaina, were largely contained, the authorities said, and search and rescue efforts were being aided by 30 members of the U.S. military. Thousands of tourists were evacuated from the island, including London Breed, San Francisco’s mayor, who was vacationing on Maui when the fire struck. Thousands more were crowding shelters on the island.
Some residents raised questions over the timeliness of evacuation orders. A number of survivors said they fled because they saw the fire, not because of any instructions from authorities.
Evacuation orders posted to social media show a confused picture. Areas around the Lahaina Intermediate School, on the eastern edge of town, were ordered to evacuate at 6:40 a.m. on Tuesday. Two and a half hours later, the Fire Department declared that the fire had been “100 percent contained.” But the fire flared back up, and new evacuation orders did not come until late that afternoon, after 4 p.m.
Cole Millington, who runs a hot sauce company in Lahaina, said the fire came with breathtaking speed. Within 15 minutes of seeing smoke outside his window, he and his roommates left their home. The street was on fire, and fallen power lines and trees were blocking the way. No one knew what was going on, he said, and traffic out of Lahaina was at a standstill. Everything he owns is now gone, he said.
Tad Craig, a wedding photographer, described hearing exploding propane tanks and being buffeted by winds so powerful that smoke from the fires was blowing sideways. “It was just a total inferno — Armageddon,” he said.
At around 2:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Michele Numbers-Stefl looked out a window of the home that she shares with her husband, Mark Stefl, in Lahaina and saw flames on a hill about 500 yards away.
“Oh, my God! Pack up the dogs, there’s a fire there!” she yelled to her husband, according to Mr. Stefl.
He told her, “Don’t worry, the Fire Department will put it out.”
Within what felt like mere seconds, Mr. Stefl said, the wildfire, fanned by the raging winds, had raced down the hill and was just 30 yards from their house. “When I turned around, it was right there. That’s how fast it was,” Mr. Stefl said. “It was like a freight train coming down the mountain.”
He and his wife ran to their cars, trying to scoop up their two dogs and two cats on the way. “We literally ran down the stairs, grabbed cats and dogs and backed up the drive through black smoke, fire, heat, just flying through,” Mr. Stefl said.
Mr. Stefl, 67, a tile setter, drove his pickup. His wife was in her Kia Sorento.
“I couldn’t see where I was driving and drove down the hill, and next thing you know, the town’s on fire,” Mr. Stefl said. “The fire was just traveling too fast and too hot, and next thing you know Lahaina Town is gone, literally gone.”
Brian Ferguson, a spokesman for the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services, for which wildfires are a constant challenge, said Hawaii authorities might have had trouble alerting tourists to danger.
“Alerts are the lifeblood of getting people to safety in a crisis,” Mr. Ferguson said. “But if you’re visiting from New Jersey, are you signed up for emergency alerts? Probably not.”
Hawaii’s emergency response also has geographic disadvantages, Mr. Ferguson said. Tens of thousands of state and local firefighters are on constant alert in California, for instance; Hawaii, a rural state, has a far lower population and far fewer emergency medical workers. Access to mutual aid and firefighting equipment is also far easier on the mainland, he noted. “Honolulu can’t just drive extra fire trucks over, if Maui needs them,” he said.
The cause of the wildfires was not yet known. However, in recent years brush fires in Maui have been fueled by nonnative grasses that overtook abandoned pineapple and sugar cane plantations, according to Clay Trauernicht, a tropical fire specialist at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. Declining rainfall, a result of weather patterns and of rising temperatures likely influenced by climate change, have also increased the risk.
This week a hurricane hundreds of miles south of the Hawaii islands helped to create the dangerous conditions that drove the fire across western Maui and into Lahaina, meteorologists said. The hurricane pulled in moisture, reinforcing the already dry conditions on Maui.
Robert Bohlin with the Hawaii Weather Office said that the strong winds accelerated when they hit Maui’s mountains, similar to the effect of a strong water current hitting a rock and speeding up on the other side. The vicious winds propelled the flames into the town, turning a wildfire into an urban one.
A number of landmarks in the historic town appear to have been destroyed, including the Baldwin Home Museum, a former missionary compound and the oldest standing home on the island.
One of the town’s cherished landmarks is still standing: a 150-year-old banyan tree on Front Street. But it appears to have been badly singed by the fire, and whether the tree will survive is unclear.
The tree was just eight feet tall when it was planted in 1873 to commemorate a Protestant mission to Lahaina a half-century earlier. However, years of careful tending by residents helped the banyan tree grow to more than 60 feet tall, according to the Lahaina Restoration Foundation, which manages more than a dozen historic sites in the town.
“It’s said that if the roots are healthy, it will likely grow back,” county officials said in an update about the tree late Wednesday. “But it looks burned.”
The damage to Maui businesses also appears substantial. Theo Morrison, executive director of the foundation, said that the damage in Lahaina, particularly to its historic district, is significant.
“People haven’t just lost homes,” she said. “They’re going to lose jobs, and we have just lost a big part of our economy. Those historic sites were part of what made Lahaina such a special place.”
Mike Baker reported from Lahaina, Hawaii, and Thomas Fuller from San Francisco. Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs, Jill Cowan, Colbi Edmonds, Jacey Fortin, Shawn Hubler, Judson Jones, Michael Levenson and Simon Romero contributed reporting.